- Mysticism in the Middle: The Mandorla as Interpretive Tool for Reading Meister Eckhart
The spirituality of Meister Eckhart (1260–1328) is fundamentally chiaroscuro in form and expression. This word, coming from the world of art, represents in itself the collision of clarity and brightness (chiaro) with obscurity and darkness (oscuro). In one single word we have two opposites existing side-by-side creating a tension out of which arises the transformative interplay between darkness and light. The word, chiaroscuro, therefore is also an example of a language mandorla. This is another word arising from the world of art, but in this case specifically from the world of religious art and architecture. The mandorla is the almond-shaped space that results in the overlap of two complete circles.1 It represents a middle, or in-between, space where opposites collide and “conflict-without-resolution” and arises as the “direct experience of God.”2 Meister Eckhart is both a master of the chiaroscuro and the mandorla. His spiritual art, founded on incarnatio continua, issues forth in both structure and expression through the on-going interplay between human and divine often represented in his works by the relationship between darkness and light. In this essay then I will seek to demonstrate how the mandorla can serve as an interpretive tool for reading the chiaroscuro language art of Meister Eckhart. In doing so I hope to provide readers today with a means to grapple with, and more deeply appreciate, the German Dominican’s mysticism in and of the middle. First, though, a word from the middle space.
Reading from the Middle
In order to honor the self-implicating nature of my own academic discipline of Christian Spirituality, as well as my own pedagogical goal of always bringing into relationship the theoretical-conceptual and the experiential, I must locate myself here as a man in the middle. At midlife I have found my own sense of “self” suddenly revealed as liminal. My own lived experience is teaching me that the primary paradox that haunts the heart of the journey through midlife is the chiaroscuro collision between limitation (darkness) and limitlessness (light).3 One discovers with age the reality of limitation, but yet, if attentive, one also experiences the expansiveness of a limitlessness that appears as well. When the two collide the experience provides an existential shock that shatters [End Page 1] the illusion of any sense of self as fixed and final, revealing it instead as a fluid entity at play between opposites. Midlife, where the first half and the second half of life collide, is in itself a mandorlic experience, and it has provided me a lived experience of faith that has shaped the lens by which I have been reading Eckhart over the last decade from age 40 to the edge of 50. So for me this lived experience of the liminality that results from the interpenetration of limitation and limitlessness, along with the symbol of the mandorla itself, provides an entrée into Eckhart’s thought. Reading Eckhart from the middle I believe offers unique insight into the structure, content and articulation of his spiritual thought. Now then in order to begin exploring Eckhart’s mysticism in the middle, it is first necessary to more fully explore the mandorla.
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The Mandorla and the Middle Space
In Italian mandorla simply means almond. Therefore, as mentioned above, the mandorla is the almond-shaped middle space created both visually and verbally when two complete, opposing circles or ideas overlap. Perhaps the most well-known mandorla is that of the ancient Christian symbol, the ichthys, or in popular parlance: the Jesus fish. The ichthys is the mandorlic symbol, used by the early Christian community, to express the incarnational reality of Jesus as both fully human and fully divine.4 According to Jungian psychologist, Robert Johnson, this almond-shaped middle space is where opposites meet and conflict-without-resolution occurs as the direct experience of God.5 In terms of the spiritual journey at midlife, in particular, “th[is] middle space is a [End Page 2] mandorla.”6 Midlife is rife with...